Memory and Oblivion in the Spanish Diaspora (2)

July 1, 2012
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It wasn’t until I began scanning the old crumbling panoramic photograph that I started to become suspicious.  The image is spectacular: a large crowd of Spanish immigrants poses for a picture at some kind of picnic.  The owner of the photo and several of the Spaniards I’ve been interviewing in Monterey told me that the event depicted in the image was a fundraiser for the Republic and that it had been held in Toro Park, between Monterey and Salinas. That helps explain the raised clenched fists of several people in the photograph.

But the upper right corner of the photograph –the very place were the photographer would have inscribed a description of the event–was missing.  Only the words “picnic” and “by” are legible.  As I carefully handled the document which was much too large for my flat bed scanner, I began to wonder if that missing corner might have been torn away, perhaps even deliberately.  In other places the photograph had become brittle and cracked; but this imperfection looked different.  In any case, I felt that I needed to know what the text might have said in that missing part of the picture.  And I wondered if I was not letting the role of “history detective” get the best of me.

With the help of three of my informants, I was able to track down a woman who lives in Marina, a few towns over from Monterey, who owns a copy of the same picture.  I spoke to her on the phone and learned that some years ago she had her family’s copy of the large panoramic print restored and framed as a gift to her father, who appears as a young boy in the photograph. She confirmed to me that there was indeed writing in the upper right hand corner of the photo.  Even though this is my last day out in California and I have a million things to do, I asked if I could go to her house to see the picture in person.  She graciously agreed to receive me.  My curiosity had been piqued.  Off to Marina.

Once I arrived, I quickly confirmed that the two photographs were the same, and was able to read the words inscribed in the upper right hand corner of this restored version of the original print:  ”Picnic to benefit the widows and orphans of Spanish Civil War, by Acción Demoócrata Española de Monterey, May 23, 1937.”

Now I’ll never know if those words had been deliberately removed from the copy of the image I had been handling today, but it is certainly tempting to imagine that they were, and to then try to speculate as to where, when, why and to whom such an inscription might have seemed inconvenient or inopportune.  Be that as it may, what is beyond doubt, I think, is that without the coordinates provided by the description, the image can more easily be decontextualized, and reduced to a quaint anthology of “faces of our forebears”; without the inscription, in other words, the photo can be more readily inscribed into the a-political realm of “family heritage.”   But the date, the name of a collective organization (Acción Demócrata Española de Monterey), and, above all, the reference to war, widows and orphans in the excised description would, it seems to me, be a real obstacle to the kind of privatization and depoliticization that often takes place when, in US culture at least, a photograph is placed into a family album.  On several occasions during this trip to California I have had the strong feeling that  this kind of “domestication” of memory –this amputation of historical context, the reduction of a complex fresco of collective action into individual, disconnected and private portraits of individuals —  is an important part of the story I am trying to piece together and understand.

But in the end, these are all just late night musings inspired by a missing corner of a picture.  Chances are the photo just got torn accidentally.  I’ll probably never know for sure.  And besides, I’ve got a plane to catch in the morning.

4 Responses to “ Memory and Oblivion in the Spanish Diaspora (2) ”

  1. Carmen Domingo on July 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Hola Jim,

    I was delighted to meet you and share with you our restored picture of the one you brought to my home for comparison.

    I very much enjoyed reading your entry about this Toro Park picture of all the Spaniards, (but one, I was told, who was ill that day), who lived in the Monterey, CA area in 1937. An actual head count of all those in the picture reveals there were approximately 167 Spaniards present…men, women and children.

    Through the years, our original picture had become severely creased in many places, small areas along the margins were torn away, and it was thoroughly pock-marked where tacks had been used to secure it to a thin, unfinished pine board.

    The picture became a source of discussion with my grandparents, the original immigrants from Spain in our immediate family. People were identified in the picture, stories were told about what the gathering at Toro Park on that day was about…and how the Spanish Civil War affected my family in the U.S. and Spain.

    There developed horrific rifts in my grandfather’s family. My grandfather and grandmother were staunchly anti-Franco. Members of his family in Spain were pro-Franco while others were anti-Franco. There were even assertions that there may have been Franco collaborators in our family. Those family members in Spain who maintained an anti-Franco position, some of whom actively and publicly opposed the regime, were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War…their livelihood was removed, families were torn asunder, careers destroyed…futures threatened.

    This picture, and the stories associated with it, had a visceral effect on me…a lasting impression…further embedded when I traveled to Spain in 1965 and met and spent time with all those face-less people of whom I had heard so much about in this continuing family feud, decades after the Spanish Civil War ended.

    Clearly, comparisons about family dynamics in a civil war can be made with the American Civil War, and those in other countries through time as well. It is a sad, but true by-product of this type of war…the fabric of societies embroiled in opposing political positions is shredded and the families at the core may be irreparably damaged.

    My mom, sister and I decided to restore our original Toro Park picture from 1937 to honor and raise money for the widows and orphans of the Spanish Civil War as a Father’s Day gift for my father in 1993. It hung proudly in the hallway of their home in Monterey (the very home my grandparents built and lived in until their deaths). It is beautifully matted and encased in a gilded frame.

    As visitors would pass through the hallway on their way to the living room, each would invariably stop and comment. The Spaniards would remember that time and reminisce …(the shadow of memory could be seen crossing their eyes and faces for just a few moments) and smiles would invariably emerge. Other visitors would marvel at it’s meaning and impact…often recognizing my dad and grandparents in the picture.

    Perhaps it is merely wishful thinking on my part that some of those at the picnic in 1937…a few with uplifted fists and grim determination on their faces…might later deny their participation in that gathering and what it was all about.

    I know my family was, and continues to be, very proud of that picture and what it represented. The history of that time and those people must never be forgotten. And how the Spanish Civil War impacted their lives and families, here and in Spain.

    We must remember why they left Spain, where they went, how they came to live in the Monterey, CA area, how they toiled so hard to become part of the American Dream for their families, and how those of us who are the recipients of that heritage.. that journey…have realized the dreams of our forefathers….and how it is our duty and obligation to honor those who came before us from Spain to educate the newest generation of those original immigrants by telling them the stories we were told as children…to ensure they know and appreciate their history, culture and language.

    I am so excited about your project and look forward to future entries and your final product.

  2. Jim on July 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Dear Carmen,

    What a wonderful response. Thanks so much. Blogging is kind of like throwing a message in a bottle into the vast cybersea, and it’s just so nice to learn that once in a while the bottle is found and the message read.

    For me the broken photograph is a source of reflection and speculation, not evidence in some kind of investigation that will end with some kind of definitive certitude. I hope I never learn how the corner of that particular photograph was broken off!

    Why would the deliberate mutilation of a photograph even cross a person’s mind as a possibility in this context? I think that in your eloquent comment, you offer some important clues: the rifts, the feuds, the families torn-asunder. Plus, there were the anti-communist witch-hunts that retrospectively tried to tar-and-feather Republican sympathizers; on the East Coast I know that a lot of innocuous (and irreplaceable) photographs and documents were destroyed in the poisoned atmosphere of macarthyism.

    The broken photo is a scriptwriter’s dream. Here’s one scenario I dreamed up: “The son of Spanish immigrants is going to visit Spain in 1955 (when Franco had already cozied up to Eisenhower), and his parents, who left the country as children in 1910, want him to take the photograph with him, to point out to the folks back in Spain all of the villagers from the province of La Coruña or Salamanca or Málaga who were together in California. The photo is a treasure, but obviously, the inscription could cause problems in Francoist Spain, and even among the divided families of the village. On the night before his journey, the decision is made to excise the inscription, just to avoid problems…”

    I’ve got several more scenarios if you don’t care for that one! I’m just so grateful that your family preserved this treasure, and that you welcomed me into your house to see it.

    I’ve been experimenting with ways of using the photo to tell the story of the community of Spaniards in Monterey. Here is a very rough sketch you might enjoy:

    https://vimeo.com/45398164

    Best wishes,
    Jim

  3. Carmen Domingo on July 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I enjoyed the rough sketch of the vimeo story of the Toro Park picture from 1937. Those interviewed remember so many names of families and individuals. It was wonderful seeing the picture moving from left to right and seeing those faces close up and personal…and remembering…the stories we were told as children of those in the picture …the stories all come tumbling back into consciousness.

    Your idea for a screenplay of the picture has definite possibilities! I suppose there are any number of scenarios that could be developed around that picture and the torn corner. It would be interesting to determine the reality of it…just to know how it occurred…instead of speculation. The truth is likely gone forever.

  4. Arcadio Díaz Quiñones on July 11, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Querido Jim,

    Qué fascinante todo: la foto intervenida, la voluntad de negar la historia de la guerra, el hallazgo de la otra copia y del texto que acompaña la imagen, la tensión entre la memoria social y la reinvención del álbum de familia, y el inspirador diálogo con Carmen! A todo esto, por supuesto, habría que agregar tu intervención como historiador de la diáspora y la tecnología que hoy permite reconstruir el manucrito borrado. Todo esto llevaría a reflexionar sobre las condiciones necesarias para construir otra memoria. Son precisamente estos momentos los que prueban la riqueza y la potencialidad de tu proyecto. Una vez más, te felicito.

    Abrazos, Arcadio.

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